Do you teach yoga? Ask yourself these three unusual questions
As a yoga teacher your role is ultimately to ensure learning takes place. Unfortunately, in teaching yoga, many miss the forest for the trees- which means their lessons fail to take in the larger picture of what the key learning in the class should be (the forest) as well as the individual chunks that make up the entire experience (the trees). Focus too much on the what (the content) and you lose how people learn and remember.
Here are three uncommon yoga teaching tips – three important questions to ask yourself that can help you understand the larger patterns present in your yoga classes
1. What are you teaching?
Be specific. Don’t say, “We’ll do some sun salutations, standing poses, seated poses, backward bends, and finish with some pranayama and meditation”, or “it’s a power-vinyasa-core workout”. Particularly avoid a hard to define theme like “gratitude”, and then fail to link it to bring about a tangible experience of it. Vague generalities make for a forgettable class in the way “meaningful” quotes pass across our Facebook feeds, only to be utterly forgotten or utilized later.
Rather- seek to find the one pattern that is common to the entire class. Perhaps the pattern is a particular movement in a joint like the spinal flexion and extension in cat-cow, or it could be an area of focus like the core or the breath. Once you have that larger level pattern then seek to approach it from each and every pose.
Humans have a logic which says if a rule or pattern is present in a large number of cases then it must be more “true”, and thus becomes more deeply embedded in memory. However, if you as a teacher are not aware of the pattern or are shooting blindly in all directions called “a yoga practice” then the experience has less impact in your students minds. A little bit of emphasis on alignment, a little on breath, a little on core, a little on power is diluted and ineffective. So ask yourself, “what is this class an example of?”
A power-vinyasa-core workout is an example of what? Resilience? Stamina? Connecting breath and movement? Once you have the ‘rule’ or ‘pattern’ (the how), the frame widens and more becomes possible. You as a teacher will also find sequencing patterns much easier. If the pattern you are presenting is “true” upside down, in a backward bend, in a forward bend, and when they stand in line at the bank, the more true it becomes and the more they’ll remember it.
If, as many teachers say, “it’s a breath-focused class” how much are you then returning to the ‘rule’ of how breath works in yoga? If you are not specifically working with that one theme in all the postures, then that is not the theme of the class.
Of course your class may already be defined as a set sequence used in Ashtanga Vinyasa or Bikram. Or some classes are about emphasizing a particular state of “mind” more than being a class on anatomy. Fine. Still ask yourself- ‘all of this sequence- for what?’
Many yoga teacher trainings indoctrinate a teaching pattern that you should sit in front of the class at the beginning and pontificate some deep and meaningful “theme” from your own experience and then assume agreement that “everyone” has had it before. But if your students cannot experience the ‘deep idea’ through whatever shifts in physiology and breathing (asana and pranayama) then it remains in the world of nice, forgettable ideas that make zero impact upon a person’s life.
So, what are you teaching really? Find the movement pattern, or primary state you want to elicit and use everything in your class to reinforce that learning.
2. What needs to happen in order to elicit an experience of the pattern?
Think of a frame inside of a frame inside of a frame- the biggest frame is the pattern you discover by asking, “what am I teaching, really?” A series of smaller frames then appear inside which suggest that you must DO something to achieve an experience of that pattern. It gets infinitely more finely tuned- eventually we analyze the big toe mounds, the arches of the feet, or the next five sub-vayus. But with beginners, if we chunk down too far (and shoot blindly in all directions) then little will be retained in memory.
For example, if you are teaching Sun Salutations, ask yourself, “what are sun salutations an example of?” Possibly you discover that they are movements and breathing with particular rules applied to it. The first chunk then is to master the rule called, ‘when you breathe in, do expanding movements’ and ‘when you breathe out, do contracting movements’. Looking at where they are now, if this first major pattern of breath is not reasonably mastered, you get a room full of people flopping their bodies about and waiting to be spoon-fed instructions. After breathing and movement I might move on to a smaller chunks like major alignment areas. But certainly I don’t start by talking about bandha, breathing, hand position, hips, heels and their big toe mounds.
For an example-
- What needs to be there in order to do an inversion? Hip opening and hamstring flexibility.
- What needs to be there in order to stimulate an experience of willpower? Core work.
- What needs to be there in order to do good backward bends? Opening of hip flexors.
A building is made up by contractors who each specialize in different areas such as electric, plumbing, foundations and more. Go from the big picture to the appropriately sized ‘chunks’ of information in order to build or elicit the experience you have in mind.
3. What evidence will you use to know that your students really understand what you are teaching?
Remember, your role is to ensure learning takes place. And how do you know that? In the same way you get all information- through your eyes, ears, and sense of touch (no need to use your tongue or nose here I think). Students are the same, they learn through visual example, through your verbal dialogue, and through their physical sensations. At first, open up all channels and SHOW them what you want, TELL them what it is, and have them DO it. In every class I use repetition and then I gradually back off and have them DO a sequence without me leading them. It then shows me how effective I am as a teacher. Unless someone has the knowledge in the muscle, they do not fully understand it yet.
If your students cannot DO the pattern yet – interpret this to mean one thing- that you as a teacher have not yet found the optimal ways of getting your idea across. Test- do they have it? If yes, you can move on and talk about more subtle and finer points. If no, loop back again, change how you say it, demonstrate it, or put them in a different pose using the same principle. Remember, the more and varied different contexts the pattern can be applied, the more they ‘get it’.
This is obviously not the same as saying that everyone in your yoga class should be performing at the same physical level. There are differences in bodies which will never be resolved with any amount of practice. My backward bends may never look like my teachers’, but if the pattern in backward bends is to roll your thigh bones internally then that is to be mastered whether you are standing up on your feet or balancing on your head.
Always look for evidence that what you are teaching is being met with comprehension or eliciting a change in state. You are always getting feedback. So know what you are really teaching, know how you will take them there, and what your evidence will be that you have arrived- or not!
Do you agree? Do you use similar techniques for yourself? Please share your comments and discussion!